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Lithium prices have jumped to their highest in more than three years thanks to an upsurge in electric vehicle sales, depleting stocks of the battery material in top consumer China.

Targets to cut carbon emissions from China to the United States cannot be met without the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles.

“Right now it’s very simple: The market is so tight that players are fiercely competing for any spot tonnage available,” said Max Deudon, a trader at Transamine in Geneva.

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More investment in lithium production is needed to meet future needs of the electric vehicle supply chain, analysts say.

“Things are heating up and there is huge anxiety about where lithium supply is going to come from in the near future,” said Benchmark Mineral Intelligence analyst George Miller.

“If new lithium doesn’t start coming to market, we might start to see electric vehicle production rates hamstrung by a lack of raw material supply.”

Electric vehicle batteries can use lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide, but the industry typically talks of volumes in lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE).

Spot prices for lithium carbonate in China have climbed 170 per cent so far this year to 142,000 yuan ($27,869) a tonne, their highest since April, 2018. Prices of spodumen, a source of lithium mainly mined in Australia, have climbed 144 per cent this year to $1,254 a tonne.

In China, the biggest market for electric vehicles, lithium carbonate output in August rose 19 per cent year-on-year to almost 20,000 tonnes, state-backed research house Antaike said.

Demand for lithium is expected to jump 26.1 per cent or about 100,000 tonnes of LCE to a total of 450,000 tonnes, flipping the market into a deficit of 10,000 tonnes, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

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Global sales of electric vehicles were up 150 per cent in the seven months to July to just over three million units, compared with the same period in 2020, with about 1.3 million sold in China, according to consultancy Rho Motion.

For 2021, Rho Motion expects electric vehicle sales to reach 5.8 million.

Higher prices have boosted the fortunes of miners with profits at Albemarle, Pilbara Minerals, Ganfeng and Tianqi Lithium soaring and share prices rising.

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